August 26, 2009
Harvey Milk and Me
Last Saturday night, I finally saw “Milk” on DVD. I had been wanting to see it when it was in theaters last year, both because of the critical acclaim that it had won, and because the film’s trailer yanked me back to a memory from teenager-hood, of hearing the breaking news that the Mayor of San Francisco and a County Supervisor had been shot and killed. It was that news flash which introduced me to a world and to a set of issues about which I had known nothing before.
Despite this however, I never made it to the theater. In large part because it’s always hard to find time to get out to the movies. But possibly also because I was not looking forward to dealing with the inner conflict that watching the film would generate. As an Orthodox rabbi and Jew, I knew I’d be on the “wrong side” of the film.
Not because Orthodox Jews should oppose equality in housing and employment for gays and lesbians, the issue around which the movie is centered. Quite to the contrary, there is no basis in Halacha for favoring such discrimination. But having been produced in 2008, the film was really about the ongoing struggle for full legal equality for gays and lesbians. And especially here in the land of Proposition 8, this means the struggle for the legal recognition of gay marriage.
I cannot and will not perform a gay marriage, just as I cannot and will not perform the marriage of a Jew and a Gentile, or a Kohen and a divorcee. When I received my Orthodox ordination, I signed up to lead my community by the strictures of Halacha (and at Sinai I personally accepted the same commitment.) But when Harvey Milk poses the question to Californians as to whether or not homosexuals are also included in the declaration that “all men are created equal” and are therefore deserving of equal treatment under the law, I am left awkwardly and unpersuasively claiming clergy exemption. Why would I have paid 10 bucks plus parking and a babysitter only to wind up feeling like that?
Now that I have seen the movie though, I am reminded that there is a reality that I can not, and do not desire to deny. I am an Orthodox Jew and rabbi .And I am also a human being. A human being who deeply appreciates the spiritual values of human dignity and civil rights that are the foundation of our democracy. Almost all of the time these two essential components of who I am reinforce and encourage one another. Here though, they are in conflict. I know what the Torah says of course, and its words are binding upon me. But as a human being reared on democracy, I cannot articulate for myself a convincing argument as to why the legal recognition of civil marriage should be withheld from citizens who, by dint of how they were born, are only able to form bonds of love and commitment with members of their own gender.
As an aside, I know that the domestic partnership laws afford almost all of the same rights and privileges that marriage does. But domestic partnerships belong to that category of “separate but equal”, suffering from the same kinds of unofficial inequalities that racially segregated schools did. It seems to me that we’re still left with a straightforward claim for “equality under the law”.
In the end, I’m glad I watched the film, despite the fact that it produced a solid sleepless hour later that night. Thank God we have a tradition in which we can - and do - live with tensions that we cannot resolve. We can come to the end of a discussion and say, “kashya”, “I don’t know what to say”. It is tempting to think concluding this way renders the entire preceding discussion a waste of time. But this could not be further from the truth. The lives of human beings are ultimately the subject of this discussion, and there is nothing more religiously irresponsible that to not recognize that the tension exists. The discussion is important to have, even when the final word is “kashya.”